22nd February 2023 – (Moscow) The war between Russia and Ukraine, which started with Russia’s unprovoked invasion on 24th February, 2022, is ongoing and encompasses all the dangers of a war between two countries. Neither side has any incentive to stop fighting, and the grim reality is that the war will likely drag on throughout 2023 and potentially beyond. The coming months will reveal whether victory for either side is possible or whether a deadlock conflict situation is more likely. Ukraine continues to have the upper hand, even if Russia’s armed forces have lately regained some momentum. However, Kyiv will face two key challenges in the coming months. First, it will need to absorb Russian attacks while conducting its own offensive operations, which will require Western heavy armour, longer-range strike capabilities, and possibly airpower. Second, Ukraine will require continued international aid and assistance to ensure its social order does not break down due to economic collapse and mitigate further damage to its critical infrastructure.

For Russia to turn the tide, it will have to dramatically reverse the abysmal performance of its armed forces. The recent failure of the Russian assault on Vuhledar in Ukraine’s southeast, seen by many as the prelude to a spring offensive, does not bode well. There is mounting pressure on those at the very top of Russia’s military leadership to achieve rapid results, and failing to achieve that will ultimately rebound on Putin. Putin’s authority is already in the spotlight, and his longevity has relied on the bargain he made with Russians to protect them and offer them stable lives with gradually improving living standards. In the last 12 months, he has broken both parts of that bargain, drafting large numbers of Russians to fight in Ukraine and causing tough sanctions in response to his actions.

If maintaining control at home becomes more challenging for Putin, a new round of brinkmanship will look increasingly attractive, and this elevates the risks of conflict escalation. Already, the past 12 months have witnessed the Kremlin flirting with global hunger games, hinting at nuclear annihilation, raising the spectre of “dirty bombs,” and branding virtually anyone who opposes Moscow as a Nazi. The West has responded tactfully and proportionately to the Kremlin’s threats so far. In 2023, we should expect a redoubling of Moscow’s efforts to fracture Western unity. Putin’s propensity for risk means any action short of war in the so-called “grey zone” is possible, as demonstrated by reports the Kremlin has been supporting a coup attempt in Moldova and aiding Serbian nationalists protesting against closer ties with Kosovo.

Meanwhile, as the war in Ukraine enters its second year, the NATO alliance is facing its greatest test in decades. With the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Donbas, Russian aggression has shattered the post-Cold War order in Europe and challenged the values of the transatlantic community.

The alliance’s response to the crisis has been mixed, with some member states advocating for a more robust military posture and others preferring diplomatic engagement with Moscow. This two-speed approach has created tension within the alliance and highlighted the divergent interests of its members.

One of the most significant developments in the past year has been the emergence of the Bucharest Nine Group, a coalition of NATO aspirant countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which has become a powerful voice in the alliance’s deliberations on Ukraine. Led by Poland and the Baltic states, this group has pushed for a more assertive response to Russian aggression, including the transfer of sophisticated weapons systems to Ukraine.

Poland, in particular, has taken a leading role in advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty and security. In January 2023, Warsaw announced an increase in its military spending to 4 per cent of GDP and has been placing numerous orders for weapons, including from the US and South Korea. The US has been working closely with Poland, providing training and equipment to Ukrainian forces, as well as stationing NATO systems and personnel in the region.

Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden, two non-NATO countries that have been increasingly concerned about Russia’s aggressive behavior, have significantly increased their defense spending in 2022, signaling their commitment to the region’s security.

However, this two-speed approach to Ukraine within the alliance is not without its challenges. While some member states advocate for a more assertive response to Russian aggression, others prefer to engage in dialogue with Moscow. This divergent approach creates the potential for disagreement and fracture within the alliance.